Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From "Worst" to First

What a quick and strange trip it's been. Just a few years back, critics were teasing the NL West by referring to the division as the "NL Worst" since the division struggled to have any team from the division finish with a winning record. Most wondered how a team could make the playoffs when they barely won more than 81 games. The Diamondbacks, Giants, Padres, Rockies and Dodgers meddled in mediocrity and, no matter who seemed to squeak by the rest, they were dead meat once they arrived to the postseason party. As I'm getting quite tired of hearing Lee Corso say on College Gameday every Saturday morning, "Not so fast, my friend!"

The former worst division in all of baseball has quickly become baseball's most competitive division from top to bottom. In 2008, the Dodger snuck into the playoff by winning a paltry 84 games while the Diamondbacks were somewhat "hot" on their tail by finishing with 82 wins on the season. In case your wondering, those are winning percentages of .519 and .506, respectively. During the same season, 84 wins would have placed the division-winning Dodgers in fifth place if they were in the NL Central instead of the appropriately named NL Worst. Believe it or not, the division was actually less competitive in 2005 when only one team, the Padres, posted a winning season by coming out ahead in 82 of the team's 162 contests, only one game over .500. During that very same season, the entire NL East finished with better records, save the Washington Nationals who won only 81 games on the year, just one short of the division-winning Padres. You clearly get the point, the National League West clearly earned the moniker of the "NL Worst".

With October 2010 just around the corner and the magic of the playoffs in the air, the super-competitive NL West is the only division race still going on. In fact, three teams are still in the hunt for the division crown and the NL Wild Card. The Giants are narrowly ahead of the Padres by one game with each team having five games left in the season. Three of those five games are against one another and will likely decide who wins the division. The Colorado Rockies aren't far off the pace and, if either the Giants or Padres get exceptionally hot and sweep one another, the Rockies may be able to sneak into second and take the Wild Card, thanks in large part to a faltering Atlanta Braves team that is fading fast in the NL East. The Rockies will have to do their best to sweep the Cardinals in their final series of the season and overcome their terrible 31-46 road record to do so. As it stands now, it appears that either the Giants or the Padres will win the division with the second place finisher settling for the Wild Card.

As mentioned above, the final series of the season will see the Giants face off against the Padres at AT&T Park in San Francisco with a division crown on the line. NL West supremacy will be up for grabs and, with this being the only race yet to be declared, nearly all of the baseball world will likely be watching. Who would have though this would be the case just a few years back? The Phillies and Reds know that they cannot afford to take either of these teams lying down since both have capable pitching to go along with scrappy, timely offenses. If you turn on your TV set this weekend to watch a little baseball, like most other baseball-loving Americans, you'll notice a fantastic is ripe for the taking. And if you pay close attention to these teams you'll clearly know that you're not watching the NL Worst anymore. In fact, you could now refer to it as the NL First.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Does it Matter Who Wins?

When one sees a question like this, and if you're self-respecting fan, one has to answer, "Hell yes!" But in the instance of the World Series looming ahead of us this year, do any of the potential National League teams have the talent and ability to beat the potential American League champs? The answer is yes, but its a tentative yes at best. Here's why:

First of all, we have to identify just who the National League champs will need to beat to win the World Series. In the AL West, Texas is all but certain to take the title. Oakland has made a nice little run lately but Texas, with a healthy Cliff Lee back in the rotation, the Rangers should finish the season atop the standings. In the Central, it looks like the Twins have a stranglehold on the division. The White Sox have done all they can to keep it close but, barring a epic collapse, Minnesota will likely hang on to represent the AL Central in the postseason. The AL East is home to tightest matchup to determine a division. At the moment, the Yankees have a half-game lead over the Rays. This one is a toss up but with a healthy A-Rod back in the lineup, New York seems likely to hold onto the division. Tampa Bay, however, has a large lead in the Wild Card standings and will almost certainly still make the postseason. In the end, the AL should be represented by Texas, Minnesota, New York and Tampa Bay.

These four teams area all solid. They are all home to strong postseason rotations and have powerful offenses. Cliff Lee, Francisco Liriano, CC Sabathia and David Price are all legitimate aces that have the ability to shut down the opponent. Behind them are a host of young, up-an-coming arms that have posted solid seasons and can provide stability each respective team's rotation. Texas is lead by Nelson Cruz and Vladamir Guerrero, Minnesota by Joe Mauer, New York by Mark Texiera, A-Rod and Robinson Cano while Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria provides the pop that makes the Rays go. Each team has the ability to score a ton of runs on the opponent and still play solid defense. The National League champs will be up against a tall order no matter who they face.

On the NL side of the equation, the races are much tighter. Only the Cincinnati Reds have a virtual lock on their division by being a surprising seven games up on the Cardinals. In the West, San Diego has weathered the storm and emerged from their slump to right the ship and are locked in a battle with the San Francisco. This race could go either way. San Diego has significantly overachieved this season and they could falter down the stretch while the Giants have made several roster additions to attempt to improve their offense but it may not be enough. In the East, The Phillies have once again got hot (and healthy) at the right time and have evened up the division against the Atlanta Braves. The nod has to go to the Phillies in this race with the presence of Halladay and the dynamic Philly offense. Atlanta is fading fast and just doesn't have the firepower to keep up so they will most likely have to battle with a few teams for the Wild Card.

In the end, I believe that the Phillies will take the East, the Giants will win the West, the Reds will hold onto the Central while the Padres (or Rockies) will take the Wild Card. If this is the case, only the Phillies and Reds have the ability to really challenge any of the American League playoff teams. These two teams can score runs in bunches and have enough pitching to keep the opponent in-check. Now these rotations aren't exactly stifling but can be effective. Roy Halladay is probably the only ace amongst the group but the bullpen of the Reds is quite impressive while the Phillies' 'pen is effective at times, as well. Joey Votto is a legitimate MVP candidate while the Phillies order with Howard, Utley and Werth in the middle should scare anybody.

So, does it really matter who emerges with the National League pennant? Of course it does, but they will still be considered the underdog regardless of who comes out of the American League. The AL teams are simply too powerful on paper to make any of the NL teams look like juggernauts. Only the Reds and Phillies have a realistic chance at taking down the rotation-rich, offense-minded American League pennant winner. Look for the American league to capture yet another World Series title in October.